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Transport was singled out in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 as a priority area for sustainable development. But the sector now accounts for approximately 30% of global CO2 emissions – making it the second largest contributor after the electricity and heat supply sector.

This is not because of a lack of effort: fuel is cleaner today; many cars and other vehicles are far less polluting and more environmentally-friendly both in their production and in their performance.

          Market development

The main reason for the unsustainable development in the transport sector is the enormous increase in demand in both passenger and freight services. While the world population currently grows less than 1-3% annually, the world’s car fleet is growing at more than 6% a year. If developing countries adopt the western travel patterns, the number of cars and commercial vehicles, currently 800 million, will rise to 1.6 billion by 2030, approximately one vehicle for every five people on the planet (based on present population growth estimates).

According to the European Transport Forum (2003), this growth will be seen mostly in countries such as Brazil, China, India, Korea, Mexico, Russia and Thailand as people enjoying greater prosperity seek to increase individual mobility. Aviation alone, if unchecked, will produce the amount of CO2 emissions allowed by the Protocol for the whole of Europe in 2050.

          Political level

In spring 2006 the European Environment Agency launched its 2005 TERM report challenging politicians to solve the dilemma between transport and environment policies – asking for more political courage to achieve the needed modal shift.

The EEA report states that there is a gap between ambitious aims on how to achieve a sustainable development in the European transport sector and what is actually happening. Faced with the alarming figures above, emerging economies can not afford to make the same mistake.

The transport sector needs more attention and to be fully integrated into the climate change framework.

International aviation and shipping are not included in the national aims set by the Kyoto Protocol and there seems to be a general lack of knowledge on transportation and its consequences for climate change.

          Railways continue to improve

Despite technological advances, transport is not developing in sustainable ways. Railways are crucial to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and creating sustainable transport systems. They offer the most energy efficient performance both according to passenger/km and tonne/km.

A shift of 3% from road to rail transport corresponds to 10% decrease in GHG-emissions. Moving from road to rail is key to achieving the Kyoto Protocol targets and beyond – and, at the same time, a sustainable global transport policy for the future.

The rail sector is not resting on its obvious energy efficiency advantage compared to other modes of transport, but is continuously working on how improve this, both on company and sector levels.

In 2002 the German Railways reached their aim of reducing their energy consumption by 25% of the 1990 level, three years ahead of schedule, and have already set ambitious aims for reducing energy consumption with a further 15-25% (depending on the framework conditions) by 2020.

These results and ambitions were among others the result of the ongoing ”EnergieSparen” (Save Energy) project, aiming to reduce energy consumption to 10% by teaching and encouraging drivers to drive in a moreenergy-efficient way. This method is now adapted by several European railways.

In the United States, where rail is the leading mode for freight transport with a market share of 40%, fuel efficiency increased by more than 60% between 1980 and 2001. On the sector level all railway-relevant technology which can improve energy efficiency has been brought together and assessed for potential to reduce energy consumption.

These evaluations are in an internet database that can be researched according to different criteria ( In September 2006 a new EU-financed project, RailEnergy was launched where these results will be taken further to jointly increase the energy efficiency of the European rail fleet.

          The steps forward

Transport policies should focus on how to establish smart sustainable transport systems giving people incentives to change their travel habits.

Two essential measures need to be integrated into policy and decision-making on transport as soon as possible. Firstly, there needs to be an equal playing field for modes of transport.

The ‘polluter pays principle’ was adopted by the 1992 Rio Declaration, but today’s prices are far from reflecting the external costs of the transport market.

According to a 2004 study (IWW/INFRAS 2004), the external costs (mostly comprising air and noise pollution, accident costs, climate change) amount to just over 7% of the GDP of 17 European countries.

In total, the road sector is responsible for over 80% of external cost damage; the aviation sector for nearly 15%, and the railways for just under 2%.

Secondly, appropriate policies to exploit the railways’ CO2 reduction potential for society must include investments in infrastructure in both developing and developed countries.

A robust rail system will be crucial to cope with the current population growth and urban area expansion, and the resulting increase in travel and mobility demands.

By establishing a basic infrastructure, the railways can become a cornerstone, linking urban hubs as well as suburban conglomerations for passengers, for the benefit and mobility of a broader population.

As well as being an answer to the problem of climate change, railways offer efficient transport built on social equity, low environmental impact and positive economic growth, resulting in more sustainable mobility and an improved quality of life.